Foreign dictates?

Foreign dictates?

Faced with complaints about its human rights abuses, Egypt is sheltering behind specious arguments about religion and national sovereignty

Unnoticed by most of the world”s news media, a bizarre quarrel has broken out between the EU and the awful Mubarak regime in Egypt.

It began on January 17, when the European parliament approved a resolution criticising human rights abuses in Egypt. In particular, it called on the Egyptian government to end its harassment of journalists and human rights defenders, lift the state of emergency, investigate suspected cases of torture and guarantee the independence of the judiciary.

Compared to what might have been said, this was pretty mild stuff and, as Bahieddin Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, later remarked, its content was “too true to be refuted”.

However, the response from President Mubarak”s National Democratic [sic] party, which – thanks to various electoral shenanigans – has an overwhelming majority in the Egyptian parliament, was one of unmitigated fury. Indeed, it was a classic example of something I discussed in a recent article on Cif, where deadbeat regimes that engage in human rights abuses shelter behind specious arguments about religion, national sovereignty and cultural imperialism.

On this occasion, it was the turn of Fathi Sorour, Egypt”s parliamentary speaker, to mouth the familiar patter about meddling in internal affairs.

“The age of capitulation is over and Egypt no longer accepts the language of foreign dictates,” he fumed, threatening to cut all ties with the European parliament.

In the meantime, he would be raising the issue at a meeting of the Union of Muslim Parliaments, which would focus on “Islamophobia in Europe” and “western hostility against Islamic values”.

“Egypt is quite capable of opening the scandalous files of human rights abuses in Europe but it will not do this because it respects its historic ties with Europe,” he thundered.

No less predictably, other NDP members blamed Israel for the European resolution. Abdel-Ahad Gamaleddin, the ruling party”s parliamentary spokesman, said he suspected Tel Aviv of trying to kill two birds with one stone – embarrass Egypt and distract international attention from Israeli atrocities in Gaza.

This display of verbal fireworks was presumably intended for domestic consumption by the Egyptian press, but the claim that Europe has suddenly embarked on unwarranted meddling in the country”s internal affairs is unbelievably silly.

In 1995, Egypt was one of a dozen non-EU countries – along with 15 EU countries – that voluntarily signed up to the Barcelona Declaration which aims to develop security, stability, trade and cultural cooperation in the Mediterranean region, and also to promote democracy, good governance and human rights. According to al-Ahram Weekly, Egypt receives €30m a year under the Barcelona process, supposedly for the purpose of developing human rights and good governance – so it can hardly complain if other signatories question what is being achieved with the money.

Since 2004, Egypt and the EU have also had an association agreement – one of a series involving Mediterranean countries. These agreements provide important economic benefits but they are not purely about trade; they encompass “cooperation” in many areas, including “political dialogue” and “respect for human rights and democracy”.

Again, this was something that the Egyptian government signed of its own accord. Obviously it wanted the economic benefits, but it can”t plead ignorance about the other aspects; they were spelled out in the agreement itself (large pdf file) and the EU has always made clear that “respect for human rights is a fundamental value” of such agreements.

At a joint meeting with Egypt in 2006, the EU explained (pdf) this in more detail:

The EU seeks to work with each partner [in Association Agreements] individually, at the appropriate pace, to achieve a significant degree of economic integration as well as deepening of political cooperation and achieve the objectives of a privileged relationship based on mutual commitment to human rights, including the rights of women and rights of persons belonging to minorities, and to shared values, principally within the fields of the rule of law, good governance and democracy … The relationship will be shaped by the degree of commitment to these common values and principles …

As part of this process, eight joint committees were set up, including a political committee that is now the official vehicle for EU-Egyptian dialogue “on concrete human rights issues”. This was the context of the European parliament”s resolution on January 17 that got the Egyptian government into such a tizz: it was simply a preparatory step before a meeting of the political committee.

Fortunately, not everyone in Egypt has been fooled by the government”s blustering. Independent MP Gamal Zahran said the European resolution should be regarded “not as interference in internal affairs, but as a warning that the state of human rights in Egypt is becoming an international issue”.

One particularly interesting reaction came from Hussein Ibrahim, parliamentary spokesman of the Muslim Brotherhood, which last week saw hundreds of its supporters arrested (yet again).

“The issue of human rights has become a global language,” he told al-Ahram Weekly. “Although each country has its own particulars, respect of human rights is now a concern for all peoples” – though he specifically excluded gay rights from that.

Rather than deploring criticism from abroad, he said, the Egyptian government would do better to improve its human rights record – which would then leave less room for foreigners to cause embarrassment.